The end . . . of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love Him, to imitate Him, to be like Him1
So said John Milton in his letter to Master Hartlib in which he outlined his own unique approach to the education of the youth of his age. Although we may disagree with Milton's ideas, nevertheless, this statement is important for us as we consider the subject of a truly Christian curriculum because it cannot be reduced to a manual of methodology. Rather, it must be the very raison d'être of education. If we do not understand our goals, what we might call our teleology, then we are doomed to ply the oceans of educational philosophy like a tramp steamer of old, picking up cargo here and dropping it off there, never seeming to get home, and getting rustier and more decrepit as time passes. "Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth" (2 Tim. 3:7).
So the intention of this article is to highlight the issues behind a truly Christian curriculum, knowing that there are a variety of methodological options open to us depending on the circumstances of the family or community that seeks to implement a truly Christian education for its children.
"Let's start at the very beginning"
In "The Sound of Music," Julie Andrews sang, "Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start, when we read we begin with ABC; when we sing we begin with doe, rae, me. . . " Oscar Hammerstein II, who penned these lines, was about as wrong as he could be. Before we can consider "ABC," we need some understanding of the meaning of language. Language, like all things, is not a universal given that "just is"; it is an aspect of the created order that God has given us. In the opening words of Van Til's marvelous essay, "The Education of Man--A Divinely Ordained Need," we read:
There is perhaps no concept underlying our system of education better fitted to bring out the distinctive character of Christian education than the concept of creation.2
Creation teaches us the distinction between the Creator and the creature. This is crucial to a correct understanding of all things. An understanding of who God is, and who we are in relation to him, is the sine qua non of a truly Christian curriculum (as well as all of life). The Creator/creature distinction establishes the painful reality for autonomous man that all of his thoughts are derivative of God's thoughts; that all of creation, and this obviously includes all created facts, has meaning only in terms of God's revelation of himself and his purposes in Scripture.
Van Til wrote,
All of man's interpretations in any field are subject to the Scriptures given him.3
So here is the root of the difference between a non-Christian curriculum and a truly Christian curriculum; the locus of man's understanding of all facts is not man's autonomous intellect, but the self-revelation of God. Every concept, fact, or theorem we teach must have as its basic presupposition that the inerrant Scriptures truthfully reveal the Creator God. Oh, it is possible to construct in our own minds a reality that might convince others. We may be able to induce the unwary and naive to accept our definition and interpretation of factuality; but when God speaks, we find that we are as Job, simply another in a long line of those who darken God's counsel by words without knowledge (Job 38:2). If we are sensible we shall clap our hands over our mouths and say with Job: "Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer thee?" (Job 40:4).
When John describes Christ as the Word made flesh having dwelt among us, "full of grace and truth," this truth, in that it is "the complex of propositions that constitute the mind of God, is fixed, final, and eternal."4
In other words, starting "at the very beginning," means that we begin with God, and proceed with him. As Solomon said: "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding have all they that do his commandments" (Ps. 111:10).
R. J. Rushdoony cites Julius B. Maller when he says:
Since holiness is not a self-generating act but requires a conformity to God's law and righteousness, an ignorant man cannot be saintly .... Knowledge is not self-generating, and the meaning of factuality comes not from the facts but from the Creator.5
Elsewhere he argues:
Education in the law is basic to and inseparable both from obedience to the law and from worship. Anything other than a Biblically grounded schooling is thus an act of apostasy for the believer.6
It is this Biblical grounding that separates the truly Christian curriculum from a non-Christian curriculum, or from a fundamentalist curriculum for that matter. A truly Christian curriculum does not simply "baptize" non-Christian books or reprint 100-year-old texts. It does not "Christianize" the school by mandatory prayers before class and a daily chapel. Its primary educational goal is not getting students into the university. Rather, the Christian educator teaches his charges that all of life and thought must be conformed to God's word simply for anything to be comprehensible. The curriculum must be based around this truth and, at every turn, point to Christ.
However, as Psalm 111:10 indicates, not only does wisdom come from a knowledge of God, but it is the daily obedience to God's commandments that brings good understanding.
Let's Aim for the Very End
Life is just what happens to you, while you're busy making other plans.7
John Lennon was wrong. Our lives are not the product of faceless karma. Rather we live and move and have our being in the predestinating God. For Lennon, life was meaningless, and the question of the future was unimportant. All that mattered was the present. However, the question of the future is vital for the Christian because the future implies a destination and a hope. Yet, for so many Christians, the future is defined by too short-term a vision.
When most Christians, and I include many Reformed Christian parents, think of the future for their children, they are pleased with themselves if they put money aside for college fees. What the child will do at college is less important than the fact that he will go there. The assumption is that their child is a unit that must be helped to make a place for himself in a world of other units. Who he is, or what he is valued for, or how he is identified are all considered in terms of the individual, and his personal achievements. Even Christians who identify with the need for dominion in every area of life will treat their children's future in purely particular terms without thinking of their child in the context of the wider church.
We read in Isaiah 2:2-3:
And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the LORD'S house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it. And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
Our thinking about education and curriculum has to be in full cognizance of the task for which we are training our children. When I speak of "task," I mean more than specific vocation, but rather the spiritual calling of discipling the nations, which, we have read, will be knocking on the door of the church, as it were, looking for answers. Isaiah 2 tells us that the dominion we are seeking to establish in the name of Christ comes about, not in the context of autonomous individuals, no matter how much education they might have, but in the context of God's church triumphant. Our children, then, must be trained to see themselves as part of the covenant community called to administer God's government.
Just as life is NOT "just what happens to you, while you're busy making other plans," so dominion will not just "happen to us" when we are looking the other way. We must tune what we teach and how we teach it to the dominion task to which our covenant children are called. Speaking of Christian education, Steve Schlissel has written:
Education is often viewed pragmatically (will it help Johnny get a job?), as opposed to covenantally (will it contribute to Johnny's ability to take his place as a righteous man among the covenant people of God?).8
The truly Christian curriculum then is rooted in the Scriptures as the foundation of all knowledge, and flowers in the future expectation that God will make Christ's enemies his footstool (Ps. 110:1).
From here we can consider the content of the curriculum.
As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth. Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies in the gate. (Ps. 127:4-5)
The main point of this verse is not that a man of God should have a large family, but that those the Lord gives are to be prepared for an offensive function. Just as the warrior or hunter will prepare different arrows for different purposes, length of flight, and depth of penetration, so the Christian warrior prepares his children for their differing tasks of dominion. Thus, although the core of a curriculum may be the same for most children, account has to be taken of the gifts and callings of each one.
Because the law is intensely practical, Hebrew education was intensely practical. The common opinion held that a man who did not teach his son the law and a trade, the ability to work, reared him to be a fool and a thief.9
However, care should be taken not to confuse the importance of a practical education with the current emphasis arising from the "School-to-Work Opportunities Act" signed into Law in 1994 by President Clinton, which:
Codifies the concept that schools should track and train students into specific jobs [into] mandated vocational training to serve the workforce.... The goal is not to graduate highly-literate individuals but to turn out team workers to produce for the global economy.10
While vocational training has its place, a good liberal arts curriculum provides the continuity with the past that is vital for the Christian. Basic literacy is fundamental to the flourishing of a godly society, and although liberals seek to defend illiteracy on the ground that people who cannot read have other, equally valuable, non-verbal skills, Clark is correct when he states bluntly that this is "a stupid effort to democratize society."11
Foundational literacy should be sought in four disciplines:
1. Reading: the foundation of all learning.
2. Writing: the foundation of all expression of learning.
3. Theology: the foundation of all moral and intellectual logic and philosophy.
4. Mathematics: the foundation of all technical and scientific logic.
From these four disciplines will flow the other curricular subjects such as history, spelling, grammar, geography, languages, art, philosophy, science, and logic.
Because a child develops in certain stages, it is important not to swamp the student with material that may be inappropriate to his stage of development. Tom Parent, in his essay, How Children Learn,12 sees three distinct stages of learning corresponding to the maturity of the child:
a. Curiosity stage: birth-8 years-of-age.
b. Analytical stage: 9-13/14 years-of-age.
c. Expressive stage: 15-20 years-of-age.
Bearing these developmental stages in mind, the truly Christian curriculum will bring a child along in each academic discipline, building upon the skills learnt and mastered, "precept upon precept; line upon line" (Is. 28:10).
Languages can be introduced quite early; however, Greek is to be preferred over Latin as it has more value in terms of the study of God's word. In recent years there has been an interest in "Classical Education," and while in its Christian garb it has value, care should be taken not to assume that "the classics" are essential for a truly Christian education. "Hebraic" rather than "Greek," integrating the academic with the practical goal, should be the watchword.
Notice must be taken of the principle of unity that arises from our starting point, "All of man's interpretations in any field are subject to the Scriptures given him." Because God is One, all knowledge is one. As nothing can be abstracted from God and retain any meaning, so no one subject can be considered in isolation from the rest of the curriculum. The entire curriculum should be taught with the goal of developing an entire and integrated world and life view that is centered on Christ.
Children should grow up understanding the relationship between what they are learning in their "academic" studies and the "real" world they inhabit and are being called to disciple and govern. Discipleship by Dad of the boys and Mom of the girls in their vocations is vital so parents can prepare their covenant "arrows" to pierce the enemy's hide and advance the kingdom of God.
To think God's thoughts after him, to dedicate the universe to its Maker, and to be the vice-regent of the Ruler of all things; this is man's task.13
Special thanks to Edward Straka for his work in this area and for allowing me use of his unpublished monograph, America Today & Christian Education. Ed is a member of Church of Christian Liberty, and Director of Whitefield College, our four-year homeschool college.
1. John Milton, Of Education.
2. Cornelius Van Til, Essays on Christian Education (P&R, 1979), 123.
3. Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge (P&R, 1969), 209.
4. Gordon H. Clark, A Christian Philosophy of Education (Trinity, 1988), 169-170.
5. R. J. Rushdoony Institutes of Biblical Law (P&R), 185.
6. op. cit., 21.
7. John Lennon, "Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)"; Double Fantasy Album http://www.merseyworld.com/imagine/
8. Steve Schlissel, "Covenant Education: Grade School Through Seminary," Chalcedon Report (1/98), 36.
9. R. J. Rushdoony Institutes of Biblical Law, 183.
10. Phyllis Schlafly, Essay "School-To-Work Will Track and Train, Not Educate", http://www.eagleforum.org/column/1997/mar97/97-03-12.html.
11. Gordon H. Clark, A Christian Philosophy of Education (Trinity, 1988), 161.
12. For more information on Biblical education, go to http://www.homeschools.org/view/learn.html, on the web-site of Christian Liberty Academy Satellite Schools.
13. Cornelius Van Til, Essays on Christian Education (P&R, 1979), 124.
- Quentin Johnston
Rev. Quentin Johnston is married to Pam and the father of Lewis, was born and raised in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was involved in the pastoral oversight of a church in Edinburgh for fifteen years before coming to the U. S. at the invitation of R. J. Rushdoony to complete his M.Div. at Whitefield Theological Seminary, Lakeland, Florida. He is now Co-Pastor of the Church of Christian Liberty, Arlington Heights, IL. He serves on the board of Christian Liberty Academy Satellite Schools and Whitefield College and is National Director of SOS CLASSACTION.